Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Constitutional Reforms in Sri Lanka: What was asked for, What was promised and What is going to be offered?

In Sri Lankan politics, things oftentimes turn topsy-turvy. When people asked for lower prices for basic food items, government lowers prices of luxury cars with absolutely feeble argument that the latter would in turn benefit people. The same thing appears to be unfolding in the sphere of constitutional reforms. In the last Parliamentary Election, one of the key appeals that the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance made was that the UPFA be given two third seats of the new Parliament so that it can amend the Second Republic Constitution changing the system highly criticized electoral system. People appeared to have accepted the necessity of changing the electoral system that have created intra-party conflict for preferential vote (manapa pore)with heavy campaign expenses on the one hand and the distanciation of elected members from the citizens on the other. As a necessary corollary of massive campaign expenses, the sponsors to election fund have naturally been placed before the people in the process of post-election decision-making. In the context in which the UPFA government is planning to present a bill to the Parliament to amend the constitution, I think people of this country should be attentive and see if the amendments are actually oriented towards correcting the existing flaws of the present constitution. Is what has now been proposed by the government consistent with what was asked for by the people in this country? What is the resemblance of the government’s proposals to what UPFA leaders promised to the people prior to the last Parliamentary election? How should people react, respond and resist in case of inconsistency and non-resemblance? These are the kind of questions. I intend to address in this article.

Since the late 1980s, there has been a general consensus that the Second Republican Constitution that was enacted in 1978 and the state structure set up by it should be replaced by a new constitution based on a new set of principles. It has also been emphasized that a legal foundation for a new state structure that is radically different from the state structure existed since 1948 should be laid. Prior to the Parliamentary and Presidential elections of 1994, discussions on this subject in different fora took place and new constitutional principles were delineated.  At least two areas of the Second Republican Constitution (SRC) that need significant and far reaching changes were specified immediately after its enactment in 1978. These two areas were (1) the excessive powers of the executive president and the downgrading of the Parliament, and (2) the electoral system based on proportional representation that made representative and represented distant from each other. Subsequently, the constitutional discourse also raised the issue that a highly centralized state structure that emanated from the First and Second Republican Constitutions should be transformed in order to meet the basic needs and the demands for power-sharing of the numerically small nations and other ethnic groups. Hence, the nexus between state restructuring and the establishment of peace, democracy, justice and human rights were widely recognized. The unresolved national question and the violation of human rights in the South in the late 1980s contributed immensely to the emergence of this general consensus. The election manifestos of the two principal candidates at the presidential election in 1994, Gamini Disanayaka of the United National Party (UNP) and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of the Peoples’ Alliance (PA) mentioned explicitly that if elected as the President of Sri Lanka, they would introduce a system of devolution of power as a means of resolving the national question and changes to the executive presidential system. Hence, in the early 1990s, the environment for constitutional changes of democratic nature appeared to be favourable and encouraging. However, the situation changed significantly and the favourable environment began to fade away due to multiple reasons. In spite of this situational shift, one may note a development that had positive implication with mixed outcomes, namely, the continuation of the constitutional debate in the form of drafting a new constitution. Although the drafting process contributed in defining basic constitutional principles, it had led to polarization of opinions on constitutional change, particularly on the issue of power-sharing.

Nonetheless, in the Presidential elections in 2005 and 2010, two principal candidates sought mandate of the people to change the SRC by introducing amendments to reduce the powers of the executive president, to change the electoral system and to introduce some kind of power-sharing arrangements. This was what Mahinda Chinthanaya (MC) proposed in 2005 in relation to executive presidency: “I expect to present a constitution that will propose the abolition of the executive presidency” (p. 97). It also proposed as an interim measure to amend the constitution to make president answerable to the Parliament. In addition to above changes, MC aimed at improving people’s rights by amalgamating to the SRC a Bill of Rights. It says: “Steps will be taken to include ‘the Charter of Rights’ into the Constitution based on the Declaration of the United Nations and other international treaties to uphold and protect social, cultural, political, economic and civil rights of all Sri Lankans” (p. 98). In order to get consensus on constitutional reforms, President Rajapaksa convened an all-party meeting and asked All Party Representative Committee to come up with proposals for a new constitution/ or substantial changes to the existing constitution. On the basis of its interim report, he reiterated that his government will take measures to implement fully the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that was violated by all the previous governments. The last Parliament also appointed a select committee to recommend electoral reforms so that flaws of proportional representation system can be corrected.

Table 1: Main Features of Constitutional Reform Discourse, 2005- June 2010

[Editors note: Please click on the images below for larger versions]

Table 1 summarizes the main features of the constitutional discourse in Sri Lanka in the last 5 years. It shows how and to what extent expectations and desires of the people were abused by the politicians in post-election periods. Columns one and two show close resemblance, but column 3 deviated from them substantially and it gives the impression that politicians are more and more concerned about protecting their power rather than satisfying people’s demands and desires. One may argue that there is no consensus on Area 3, namely, power-sharing, although two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, have accepted the position that some degree of power-sharing is imperative in addressing the issue of numerically small national groups. But the irony is that there is no progress in Area 1, 2, and 3 in spite of the fact since the late 1980s almost all the political parties have been in broad agreement on these three areas of constitutional reforms. This in itself shows one of the basic problems of the Sri Lankan political system, namely, the nature of representation that stems directly from the existing constitutional framework the influence of other factors notwithstanding.

This makes it necessary that people should participate actively in the process of constitution-making and should bring pressure to their representative in the Parliament and reactivate their own organizations. The issue of constitution is a national issue so that it should necessarily transcend party boundaries. Hence, people should ask for open and free vote in the Parliament on the issue of constitution change.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya. E-mail: [email protected]